Science | November 22, 2021 6:02 am

Latest Side Effect of Climate Change Might Be a Bubonic Plague Comeback

Unnerving on every level

Prairie dogs
Prairie dogs can carry the bubonic plague. That's a comforting thought.
Joshua J. Cotten/Unsplash

The list of things that climate change has made worse seems to increase on a regular basis. The weather itself? Check. Political strife? Check. Agriculture? Check. And now we can add public health to that list. Alarming as it might be to think about it, the bubonic plague is still out there — and it’s spent the last few years infecting prairie dogs in the western United States. Given the history of viruses that have spread from animals to humans, some scientists are watching this phenomenon with no small amount of concern.

How does climate change factor into this? As Molly Taft reports at Gizmodo, climate change has heightened the likelihood that the plague might spread from rodents to humans. Since 1950, increases in temperatures have made — as Taft phrases it — “rodent communities in certain areas at higher elevations were up to 40% more likely to harbor the disease.”

In other words, the more rodents infected with Yersinia pestis, the greater the odds are that one of them might transmit it to a human. And yes, that’s every bit as unnerving as it sounds.

A new study by Colin J. Carlson, Sarah N. Bevins and Boris V. Schmid that was published in the journal Global Change Biology goes into greater detail about all of this. The study’s authors write that “due to the changing climate, rodent communities at high elevations have become more conducive to the establishment of plague reservoirs — with suitability increasing up to 40% in some places — and that spillover risk to humans at mid-elevations has increased as well, although more gradually.”

Carlson spoke with Gizmodo about the risk of plague, along with other dangers posed as a result of climate change. “Plague is probably pretty low on the things to worry about, compared to risks of forest fires etc, when the western US is heating up,” he said — which is also far from a comforting thought.